A Brief Introduction to Ancient Malware: The Creeper Virus

Before Computer Networks existed, the idea of a computer ‘virus’ was already an existing concept, although still a hypothesis. The theory of a program reproducing itself was first proposed by John Von Neumann, who was a mathematician during the 1940s. Although his hypothesis was not intended to describe the type of malware that we all know and love today (That was Sarcasm.exe running in the background, by the way), his theory nonetheless became a reality around thirty years later, in 1971, in the form of the Creeper Virus (Technically, a Worm), the first of its kind.

Although technically not a computer virus, the Creeper was a program that resembled many features of its modern malware counterparts, and was originally made to move between early DEC PDP-10 Mainframe computers which ran using the Tenex operating system. A later version of the Creeper was then designed to copy itself and spread through the internet-like prototype network called the ARPANET (In this sense, computer viruses, interestingly enough, outdate the Internet itself).

Upon infecting a system, the program would simply display the message ‘I’M THE CREEPER: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN’ (Perhaps also distinguishing itself as one of the first internet trolls to ever exist, if we’re being honest). Asides from posting the rather cheeky message, the Creeper Virus did not harm the operating system beyond this. It did not destroy data, steal personal information, or encrypt any files, like its descendants are so notoriously known for. Indeed, the inventor of the program, Bob Thomas, intended to simply experiment with the possibilities of creating a self-replicating program.

Although the consequences of its infection would not be considered as devastating as the types of malware existing nowadays, it was nonetheless the first type of rouge computer Program, and also the first type of Worm Virus, (a self-replicating type of virus) to be created. A major difference though, between modern Worms, and the Creeper Virus was that, after duplicating itself, it erased its older versions, as it spread through new devices.

Indeed, the creation of the first virus-like type of program would see the origin of a similar type of program rather widespread today: The Anti-Virus. The Reaper program, created by Ray Thomlinson, was very effective in eradicating its mischievous counterpart, the Creeper. The historical Anti-Virus was eventually able to remove any instance of ‘Creeper Attacks’ from the computer, as soon as it was detected.

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